Feature Article - July 2019
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In Safe Keeping

The Right Surface Is Crucial to Playground Safety

By Dave Ramont

Wear mats are designed to hold fill in place, particularly under swings, and at entrances and exits of slides, spinners and other high-traffic areas. Mrakovich's company also offers a wear mat requiring no fill under or above the mat—the mats provide the impact absorption needed. He said the mats are extremely helpful in maintaining performance in loose-fill surfaces. "The wear mats will keep the area level and retain fall attenuation. If theft is a concern, we recommend using a safe anchoring system that we developed."

Sand and pea gravel are still used as playground surfaces, and affordability is one big factor why. Again, they should have at least a 12-inch depth. Some sand can contain harmful materials, so it's recommended to use only sand or pea gravel specifically made for playgrounds. Additionally, these surfaces can conceal sharp objects, animal waste or pests, and small children might stick them in mouths or eyes.

Rubber mulch—whether shredded or nuggets—is also inexpensive, offers good drainage and minimizes dust. It won't float or absorb water in heavy rains and doesn't attract harmful insects. However, like sand and pea gravel, it doesn't provide good ADA accessibility.

"These choices offer good fall attenuation when properly maintained," Mrakovich said, "but can be challenging when dealing with accessibility. These loose-fill surfaces do not offer the same knitting quality as EWF. Some rubber mulch products will knit together, but some are shaped into nuggets and do not typically form a firm, stable surface. Ask the manufacturer for samples."

Kutska said that while sand and gravel do have accessibility issues, both do have benefits as playground surfacing under certain conditions, as long as the proper type of sand is used. "Once you start with pea gravel and sand and have a good source for what will comply with impact attenuation requirements, the owner must commit to continue to purchase any future additions needed to maintain the proper depth from the same provider and in most cases the same quarry."

"Rubber mulch has issues with metal from tire shredding operations that cannot completely be removed," said Kutska. "The standard is that loose rubber must be 99.9 percent metal-free. In a ton of loose rubber, how much metal equals one-tenth of one percent? You do the math."

He added that rubber can oxidize from UV degradation and some claim it's dirty, but it can give good impact attenuation if maintained according to the requirements of the CPSC Handbook. "It likes to migrate out of its intended home and can get into everything, just as all loose-fill surface systems."

Unitary surfaces don't require a lot of maintenance, and they typically offer longer warranties. They're available in an array of colors and designs so you can create original themes in your playground. They are slip-resistant, won't conceal foreign objects and offer excellent accessibility for mobility devices, wheelchairs and strollers. They generally offer a high level of firmness, stability and durability.

Downsides include cost—they are a much more expensive option and require professional installation. Unitary surfaces can get hot in the summer and can harden over time with exposure to UV light or extreme temperatures. Some experts suggest that long bone fractures like wrist or ankle injuries might occur more frequently on a unitary product versus a loose-fill product. And while PIP surfaces are relatively maintenance-free, cracking or flaking can occur after years of use.

The poured-in-place surface is poured over a sub-base, and the end product is a smooth, seamless and cushioned rubber surface. PIP is installed at different thicknesses for different deck heights. It offers excellent shock absorption, and is available in a range of colors and designs. "Any creative person can design amazing patterns and elements with PIP. Cool designs are definitely on the rise compared to five years ago," said Darren Toomey, CEO of a Texas-based safety surfacing company offering PIP, synthetic turf and shredded rubber mulch. "Loose-fill needs at least weekly maintenance in order to stay compliant. Turf needs to have the sand infill redone annually to keep the impact attenuation in check and to avoid wrinkling. PIP is a maintenance-free system," said Toomey.

Rubber tiles are made of bonded rubber and formed into squares with interlocking sides. They're highly durable and impact resistant, and another great choice for accessibility. Like PIP, they are more expensive than loose-fill surfaces and require professional installation. Tiles can curl at the edges over time, causing a tripping hazard, and dirt and debris can accumulate between the joined pieces. But worn tiles are easily repaired, and maintenance consists of simple sweeping or cleaning, like PIP. Various colors and designs are available.

Synthetic grass has evolved over the years, and these days there are softer, more realistic grass-texture options. Grasses can be nylon, polyethylene or polypropylene. "Nylon is a more durable material, but polyethylene and polypropylene are softer to the touch," said Mrakovich. It's less costly then solid rubber, but does require professional installation. It offers good impact attenuation, is easy to maintain, won't conceal objects and offers good accessibility. Static electricity may build up on the turf, so the surface might require an anti-static solution, and it can absorb heat.